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Life and Work
Berossos published the Babyloniaka (hereafter, History of Babylonia) some time around 278-290 B.C.E. for the Macedonian/Seleucid king, Antiochus I. Certain astrological fragments recorded in Pliny the Elder, Censorinus, Flavius Josephus, and Marcus Vitruvius Pollio are also attributed to him, but are of unknown provenance, or indeed where they might fit into his History. Vitruvius credits him with the invention of the semi-circular sundial. A statue of him was erected in Athens, perhaps attesting to his fame and scholarship as historian and astronomer-astrologer. A separate work, Procreatio, is attributed to him in the Latin work, Commentariorium in Aratum Reliquiae, but there is no proof of this connection. However, a direct citation (name and title) is exceedingly rare in antiquity, and it may have referred to Book 1 of his History.
He was born during or before Alexander the Great's reign over Babylon (330-323 B.C.E.), with the earliest date suggested as 340 B.C.E. It is suggested that his native Akkadian name was Bel-re-ušu, which means, "Bel is my shepherd." "Berossos" is one of several Greek transliterations of his name. According to Vitruvius' work de Architectura, he eventually moved to the island of Kos off the coast of Asia Minor and set up a school of astrology there, under the patronage of the king of Egypt. However, scholars have questioned whether it would have been possible to work under the Seleucids and then move on to a region under Ptolemaic control late in life. It is not known when he died.
History of Babylonia
The History of Babylonia as a complete text is now lost in antiquity, and what remains comes from secondary sources of classical writers. The reasons why Berossos wrote the History have not survived, though other contemporaneous Greek historians did give reasons for the publication of their own histories. It is suggested that it was commissioned by Antiochus I, perhaps desiring a history of one of his newly-acquired lands, or by the Great Temple priests, seeking justification for the worship of Marduk in Seleucid lands.
Transmission and Reception
Berossos' work was not popular in the Hellenistic period. The usual account of Mesopotamian history came from Ktesias of Knidos' Persica, while most of the value of Berossos was seen to be his astrological writings. Most pagan writers probably never read History directly, and appear to be dependent on Poseidonios of Apamea (135-50 B.C.E.), who cited Berossos in his works. While Poseidonios' accounts have not survived, the writings of these tertiary sources do: Vitruvius Pollio (a contemporary of Caesar Augustus), Pliny the Elder (d. 79 C.E.), and Seneca the Younger (d. 65 C.E.). Seven later pagan writers probably transmitted Berossos via Poseidonios through an additional intermediary. They were Aetius (first or second century C.E.), Cleomedes (second half of second century C.E.), Pausanias (ca. 150 C.E.), Athenaeus (ca. 200 C.E.), Censorinus (3rd century C.E.), Palchus (sixth century C.E.), and an anonymous Latin commentator on the Greek poem Phaenomena by Aratus of Sikyon (ca. 315-240/39 B.C.E.).
Jewish and Christian references to Berossos probably had a different source, either Alexander Polyhistor (c. 65 B.C.E.) or Juba of Mauretania (ca. 50 B.C.E.-20 C.E.) Alexander's numerous works included a history of Assyria and Babylonia, while Juba wrote On the Assyrians, both using Berossos as their primary sources. Josephus' records of Berossos include some of the only extant narrative material, but he is likely dependent on Alexander Polyhistor, even if he did give the impression that he had direct access to Berossos. The fragments of Berossos found in three Christian writers' works are probably dependent on Alexander or Juba (or both). They are Tatianus of Syria (second century C.E.), Theophilus Bishop of Antioch (180 C.E.), and Titus Flavius Clemens (ca. 200 C.E.).
Like Poseidonios, neither Alexander's or Juba's works have survived. However, their material on Berossos was recorded by Abydenos (second or third century C.E.) and Sextus Julius Africanus (early third century C.E.). Their work is also lost, possibly considered too long, but Eusebius Bishop of Caesaria (ca. 260-340 C.E.), in Chronicon preserved some of their accounts. The originals or early copies of Chronicon are also now lost to us but our sources include an Armenian translation (500-800 C.E.), and Georgius Syncellus' Ecloga Chronographica (ca. 800-810 C.E.). Nothing of Berossos survives in Jerome's Latin translation of Eusebius. Eusebius' other mentions of Berossos in Praeparatio Evangelica are derived from Josephus, Tatianus, and another inconsequential source (The last cite contains only, "Berossos the Babylonian recorded Naboukhodonosoros in his history.").
Christian writers after Eusebius are probably reliant on him, but include Pseudo-Justinus (third-fifth century C.E.), Hesychius of Alexandria (fifth century C.E.), Agathius (536-582 C.E.), Moses of Chorene (eighth century C.E.), an unknown geographer of unknown date, and the Suda (Byzantine dictionary from the tenth century C.E). Thus, what little of Berossos remains is very fragmentary and indirect. The most direct source of material on Berossos is Josephus, received from Alexander Polyhistor. Most of the names in his king-lists and most of the potential narrative content have disappeared or been completely mangled as a result. Only Eusebius and Josephus preserve narrative material, and both had agendas. Eusebius was looking to construct a consistent chronology between the pagan and Christian worlds, while Josephus was attempting to refute the charges that there were people older than the Jews. However, the ten ante-diluvian kings were preserved by Christian apologists interested in the long lifespans of the kings were similar to the long lifespans of the ante-diluvian ancestors in Genesis.
Sources and Content
The Armenian translation of Eusebius and Syncellus' transmission (Chronicon and Ecloga Chronographica respectively) both record Berossos' use of "public records" and it is possible that Berossos catalogued his sources. This did not make him reliable, only that he took some care with the sources and his access to priestly and sacred records allowed him to do what other Babylonians could not. What we have of ancient Mesopotamian myth is somewhat comparable with Berossos, though the exact integrity with which he transmitted his sources is unknown, due to the fact that much of the literature of Mesopotamia has not survived. What is clear is that the form of writing he pursued was dissimilar to actual Babylonian literature, writing as he did in Greek.
Book 1 fragments are preserved in Eusebius and Syncellus above, and describe the Babylonian creation account and establishment of order, including the defeat of Thalatth (Tiamat) by Bel (Marduk). According to him, all knowledge was revealed to humans by the sea monster Oannes after the Creation, and so Verbrugghe and Wickersham (2000:17) have suggested that this is where the astrological fragments discussed above would fit, if at all.
Book 2 describes the history of the Babylonian kings from creation till Nabonassaros (747-734 B.C.E.). Eusebius reports that Apollodoros reports that Berossos recounts 430,000 years from the first king, Aloros, to Xisouthros and the Babylonian Flood. From Berossos' genealogy, it is clear he had access to king-lists in compiling this section of History, particularly in the kings before the Flood (legendary though they are), and from the 7th century B.C.E. with Senakheirimos (Sennacherib, who ruled both Assyria and Babylon). His account of the Flood (preserved in Syncellus) is extremely similar to versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh that we have today. However, in Gilgamesh, the main protagonist is Utnapishtim, while here, Xisouthros is likely a Greek transliteration of Ziusudra, the protagonist of the Sumerian version of the Flood.
Perhaps what Berossos omits to mention is also noteworthy. Much information on Sargon (ca. 2300 B.C.E.) would have been available during his time (e.g., a birth legend preserved at El-Amarna and in an Assyrian fragment from 8th century B.C.E., and two Neo-Babylonian fragments), but these went unmentioned. Similarly, the great Babylonian king Hammurabi (ca. 1750 B.C.E.) merits only passing mention. He did, however, take the time to point out that the queen Semiramis (probably Sammuramat, wife of Samshi-Adad V, 824-811 B.C.E.) was Assyrian. Perhaps it was in response to Greek writers mythologising her to the point where she was described as the founder of Babylon, daughter of the Syrian goddess Derketo, and married to Ninos (the legendary founder of Nineveh, in Greek eyes).
Book 3 relates the history of Babylon from Nabonassaros to Antiochus I (presumably). Again, it is likely that he followed king-lists, though it is not clear which ones he used. The Mesopotamian documents known as King-List A (one copy from the sixth or fifth centuries B.C.E.) and Chronicle 1 (3 copies with one solidly dated to 500 B.C.E.) are usually suggested as the ones he used, due to the synchronicity between those and his History (though there are some differences). A large part of his history around the time of Naboukhodonosoros (Nebuchadnezzar II, 604-562 B.C.E.) and Nabonnedos (Nabonidus, 556-539 B.C.E.) survives. Here we see his interpretation of history for the first time, moralising about the success and failure of kings based on their moral conduct. This is similar to another Babylonian history, Chronicle of Nabonidus, and differs from the rationalistic accounts of other Greek historians like Thucydides.
The Achievements of History of Babylonia
Berossos' achievement may be seen in terms of how he combined the Hellenestic methods of historiography and Mesopotamian accounts to form a unique composite. Like Herodotus and Thucydides, he probably autographed his work for the benefit of later writers. Certainly he furnished details of his own life within his histories that broke with any Mesopotamian practices of anonymous scribes. Elsewhere, he included a geographical description of Babylonia, similar to that found in Herodotus (on Egypt), and used Greek classifications. There is some evidence that he resisted adding information to his research, especially the earlier periods of which he was not familiar with. Only in Book 3 do we see his opinions begin to enter the picture.
Secondly, he constructed a narrative from Creation to his present day, again similar to Herodotus or the Hebrew Bible. Within this construction, the sacred myths blended seemlessly with history. Whether he followed Hellenistic skepticism about the existence of the gods and their tales is unclear, though it is likely he believed them more than the satirist Ovid, for example. The naturalistic attitude found in Syncellus' transmission is probably more reflective of the later Greek authors who transmitted the work than Berossos himself.
During his own time and later, however, the History of Babylonia was not distributed widely. Verbrugghe and Wickersham argue that the lack of relation between the material in History and the Hellenistic world was not relevant, since Diodorus' equally bizarre book on Egyptian mythology was preserved. Instead, the reduced connection between Mesopotamia and the Greco-Roman world under Parthian rule was partially responsible. Secondly, his material did not contain as much narrativisation, especially of periods he was not familiar with, even when potential sources for stories were available. They suggest:
- "Perhaps Berossos was a prisoner of his own methodology and purpose. He used ancient records that he refused to flesh out, and his account of more recent history, to judge by what remains, contained nothing more than a bare narrative. If Berossos believed in the continuity of history with patterns that repeated themselves (i.e., cycles of events as there were cycles of the stars and planets), a barre narrative would suffice. Indeed, this was more than one would suspect a Babylonian would or could do. Those already steeped in Babylonian historical lore would recognize the pattern and understand the interpretation of history Berossos was making. If this, indeed, is what Berossos presumed, he made a mistake that would cost him interested Greek readers who were accustomed to a much more varied and lively historical narrative where there could be no doubt who was an evil ruler and who was not." (2000:32)
What is left of Berossos' writings are useless for the reconstruction of Mesopotamian history. Of greater interest to scholars is his approach to historiography, tied as it was to both Greek and Mesopotamian methods. The affinities between it and Hesiod, Herodotus, Manetho, and the Hebrew Bible (specifically, the Torah and Deuteronomistic History) as histories of the classical world give us an idea about how ancient people viewed their worlds. Each begins with a fantastic creation story, followed by a mythical ancenstral period, and then finally accounts of recent kings that appear to be historical, with no demarcations in between. Blenkinsopp notes:
- "In composing his history, Berossus drew on the mythic-historiographical tradition of Mesopotamia, and specifically on such well known texts as the creation myth Enuma Elish, Atrahasis , and the king lists, which provided the point of departure and conceptual framework for a universal history. But the mythic and archaic element was combined with the chronicles of rulers which can lay claim to being in some degree genuinely historical." (1992:41)
This early approach to historiography, though preceded by Hesiod, Herodotus, and the Hebrew Bible, demonstrates its own unique approach. Though one must be careful about how much can be described of the original work, his apparent resistance to adding to his sources is noteworthy, as is the lack of moralising he introduces to those materials he is not familiar with.
- Blenkinsopp, J. 1992. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. New York: Anchor Doubleday.
- Verbrugghe, G.P. & Wickersham, J.M. 2000. Berossos and Manetho Introduced and Translated: Native Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
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